Today we welcome guest blogger Hanah Cho, a business reporter at The Sun. She attended the Gerontological Society of America conference as a 2011-2012 Metlife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellows Program, a project of GSA and New America. She tell us how to live well into old age.
Meet Saburo Shochi.
He is 105.
His lifespan is a remarkable feat considering the average life expectancy for the U.S. population is 77.9, according to the U.S. Census.
I met Shochi at The Gerontological Society of America conference in Boston this past weekend, where he was sharing his life story as well as his daily routine for maintaining good health. Listening to gerontologists and researchers who study centenarians, I was struck by how many of us can reach the mid-80s by maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
Based on studies, gerontologists believe that about 70 percent of our lifespan is due to the environment or nature, while the remaining 30 percent is genes, said Dr. Thomas T. Perls, director of the New England Centenarian Study at Boston University School of Medicine. Perls points to a results from a study of Seventh Day Adventists at Loma Linda University in California – which found that the group has the highest life expectancy of 88 years old.
Their healthy lifestyle is mostly dictated by their religion, which prohibits Seventh Adventists from drinking and smoking. They also exercise regularly, eat in moderation and many are vegetarians, Perls said. Seventh Adventists also have a strong social network of family and friends that may help them manage stress well, Perls added.
“They’re living about six to seven years more than the rest of us. Clearly the reasons are the healthy behaviors,” Perls said. “That says to me everyone in the room has the opportunity to get to 86 as men and 89 as women.”
Here is where nature vs. nurture gets trickier.
“To live an additional 10 or even 20 years beyond age 90 is when we see the growing importance of genetic variance,” Perls said.
That’s why Perls and other researchers study centenarians so that they could identify and better understand genetic – and lifestyle -- factors associated with what gerontologists call exceptional longevity.
Perhaps one of the best-known groups of centenarians is the elderly Okinawans. Dr. Bradley Willcox, one of the lead researchers of the Okinawa Centenarian Study, says both “genetic and nutritional factors act together” to contribute to their longevity.
“One of the reason they live so long is they’re a naturally caloric restricted population,” Willcox said. Older Okinawans’ diet consists of mostly vegetables, tofu and lots of sweet potato for “optimal nutrition,” Willcox said.
Besides eating well, researchers have found other lifestyle commonalities among centenarians: They include exercising or maintaining an active lifestyle; having a strong social network; and having the right outlook or life purpose.
Dr. Shochi’s routine for his good health follows a similar path. He exercises regularly using a baton. He keeps his mind sharp by keeping a diary in a foreign language as well as learning other language via a radio course. He also chews each mouthful of food 30 times, a practice he learned from his mother. He also follows two additional steps: Rubs down his body with a cold wet towel and sleeps in a special hard mattress.
Shochi continues to travel around the world so that he could share his knowledge and learn from others, Taketoshi Koga, one of his traveling companions, said through a Japanese interpreter.
For additional information resources, check out National Geographic writer Dan Buettner’s research on five Blue Zones, or communities around the globe that have the world’s highest life expectancy.
Also check out The Living to 100 Life Expectancy Calculator, which uses the medical and scientific data to estimate your lifespan.